It’s been 10 years since James “J-Dilla” Yancey died on February 10, 2006 at the age of 32. I have written about him many, many times since. However, my initial reaction to his death remains my most honest and personal Dilla piece. So in honor of his impact on my life, I’ve decided to re-post my piece on what would have been his 42nd birthday.
I originally wrote my memoriam for freerap.blogspot.com, which I maintained from 2005-2006. The blog no longer exists on the web, but you can view a December 2, 2005 snapshot on the Internet Archive. When I launched a second and more ambitious website, plugonemag.com, I re-posted that item along with a fresh introduction on February 6, 2007.
Now that my focus is Critical Minded, my first tribute to J-Dilla deserves placement here.
Big Sean’s motto is “Finally Famous.” It was the title of his first three mixtapes and his debut album, and he repeats the phrase a few times on his just-released Dark Sky Paradise. But what does it mean to be “famous,” anyway? Is it a way to purchase more things? Attract partners with wealth and power? Assemble a wide audience for his art?
For much of his career, Big Sean didn’t really bother to answer those questions. But on Dark Sky Paradise, he appears to realize that rappers aren’t awarded greatness unless they have some kind of substance, whether it’s evoking their community, inventing a new twist to the form, or simply expressing their inner thoughts. He rhymes about growing up in Detroit, and sounds anguished at how his old friends view him now. On “Win Some Lose Some,” he admits it took a few years to afford his mother a new car. “People thinking I’m rich, and I wish they knew that/ I’ve been signed for four years, and I’m just now able to do that,” he raps. It’s a telling moment that contradicts the instant money narrative he often promotes.
Dark Sky Paradise has a bunch of party raps, too – see “Blessed” with Drake – and that’s fine. Unlike his sometimes-overwrought mentor Kanye West, Big Sean is mostly a lighthearted guy. It’s what we’ve liked about him so far, whether it’s the “Hammertime” silliness of “Dance A$$,” the chipmunk bounce of his “My Homies Still” duet with Lil Wayne, or the urban pop airiness of “My Last.” The new album isn’t a masterpiece by any measure, but perhaps it marks a turning point when Big Sean balances the pop-rap instincts that keep him “famous” with the gravitas that earns the kind of industry respect he hungers for.
Eminem should have picked a different title for The Marshall Mathers LP2. On its 2000 predecessor, he plumbed the ugly depths of the male ID with anguished ferocity, giving voice to blasphemous dreams of criminality and murder. He created a fictional character, “Stan,” that so vividly captured how we the audience – and hip-hop fans in particular – mistake complex rap lyrics for pure autobiography that it has become shorthand for a kind of perverse idolatry. Eminem tried to repeat that performance for many years afterward, or at least live up to it, by wearing us down with increasingly hammy shock tactics. It wasn’t until he repositioned himself as a man who employs self-help jargon to prove his decency in 2010’s Recovery that he found a credible follow-up.
“If I have one fan rate me highly, I could never feel underrated,” raps Black Milk in his slightly stilted Midwestern accent on “What It’s Worth.” It’s one of many albatrosses the Detroit musician – no, really, he plays live drums and keyboards – has carried throughout his career. Another well-worn claim is that he’s a far better producer than rapper, but even his late mentor J Dilla was better at turning a clever hook than delivering an actual rhyme. (“Still won’t let you live out from the shadow of your hero,” he rues on “All Mighty” as he tries to cast another critic monkey off his back.) Unfortunately, all this chatter has led to the kind of polite applause that prevents us from fully appreciating Black Milk’s gifts. His 2008 breakthrough Tronic deserves to be ranked as a minor classic, half-decent raps or not.
The rap nerds don’t know what to do with Eminem. Ten years ago, they loudly proclaimed him a genius, the greatest MC of all time. He was a master of the 16-bar verse, and a vocal stylist who employed bounce, speed-rapping, and drawling affectations at whim. His lyrical provocations, from turning his ex-girlfriend Kim into a symbol for abusive male-female relationships to exporting Detroit street rap culture to the suburbs, drew kudos from songwriters like Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, and rock dudes that usually denigrated rappers as mumbling, inarticulate hooligans. And as acclaim followed, so did massive success, as mega-hits like 2000’s classic The Marshall Mathers LP blasted through the marketplace.
But now, the hip-hop intelligentsia has written Eminem off. For them, he’s just another aging rapper with rapidly deteriorating skills. They believe that his new album Recovery is a noble failure, an unsuccessful attempt to reignite the dying embers of his early 2000s dominance over the pop Zeitgeist. The Internet teems with mockery over some of his lyrics, with this line from the number one hit “Love the Way You Lie” achieving special infamy: “Now you get to watch her leave out the window/ I guess that’s why they call it window pane.”
So why is Recovery the biggest selling album of 2010 so far? Are critics and hardcore rap fans getting it wrong? Most of them wouldn’t readily admit it. They would rather offer Recovery faint praise, musing that at best it’s a minor improvement over Em’s last two albums, 2004’s widely panned Encore and last year’s equally derided Relapse.